Teresa MacBain: From Methodist Minister to Atheist Advocate

This is an article by Pamela Whissel. It appears in the 4th Quarter 2012 issue of American Atheist Magazine. American Atheist is available at Barnes & Noble and Book World bookstores in the US and Chapters Indigo bookstore in Canada. You can subscribe to the magazine by clicking here.

“Here I am. A pastor and an Atheist. This has to be the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. I look forward to the day when I can hop in my car and leave god in the rearview mirror. I have a plan. I’m working hard to get out. But for now I must remain in hiding. My time will come and then I can be real for a change!”

Teresa MacBain writing as “Lynn,” February 12, 2012, on AgnosticPastor.wordpress.com.

“I’m a clergyperson. My nametag says Lynn. But I want to let you know something that the Atheist community hasn’t known yet. My name is Teresa. I live in Florida. I’m a pastor currently serving a Methodist church — at least up to this point — and I am an Atheist.”

Teresa MacBain, speaking as Teresa MacBain, March 26, 2012, American Atheists National Convention, Bethesda, Maryland.

“Former Pastor Teresa MacBain Now American Atheists Public Relations Director”

American Atheists press release, July 23, 2012.

It would be fun to say that if Teresa hadn’t come along, we would have had to invent her. But American Atheists isn’t an organization that needs to invent beings who are too good to be true. Real people, with real stories and faith in reason, are more than enough.

The reaction by news organizations to her coming out is proof of that. She made headlines at many levels. Her local news station treated it like a scandal. National reports were objective for the most part, yet they presented her as a curiosity more than anything. Here, in her own words, she demonstrates that coming out of the Atheist closet is not the end of the world. It’s the end of just one of many possible worlds. She may not believe in life after death anymore, but she’s a firm believer in life after faith.

Teresa MacBain

Teresa was raised in a fundamentalist Baptist home in Alabama. Her father was a minister. Growing up, she knew she was meant to be a minister as well. She attended a Baptist college in Birmingham and then went on to Duke University’s Divinity School. She was “100% sold out for god.” With her first full-time pastorate at age 30, she was filled with excitement — she was going to change the world for Christ! If she wasn’t a true believer, then no one was. She was on fire for god as much as anyone she knew. But along the way, something went very, very right.

She first noticed Biblical inaccuracy and contradictions as a young teen. “I remember studying the book of 1 Corinthians. I caught the Apostle Paul in a contradiction! In chapters 12-14, Paul is giving instructions on church issues. Paul gives the instruction that ‘women are to keep silent in church,’ but then he says, ‘when a woman prays or prophecies in church with her head uncovered, she dishonors her head.’ I brought this issue to my dad and asked him which one was correct. He simply told me that God’s ways are higher than our ways. As humans, we can’t begin to understand God and this must be taken by faith. So, I tried to ignore the questions — but they refused to remain hidden!”

She had been dealing with such contradictions for many years when she started thinking about hell. She wanted to figure out which of the many theological interpretations of hell was true. Ironically, a Christian book was her biggest help in moving away from any belief in hell. Love Wins, by Rob Bell, examines the theology of hell. His conclusions were what pushed her to examine the theology further. It wasn’t a huge leap from his book to throwing hell away for good.

The final two steps in what she calls her “ascent to Atheism” occurred almost simultaneously. “First was the issue of religions. After struggling for so many years and coming to the conclusion that the Bible is not accurate and hell is not real, I started thinking about all the different religions in the world. I still had a belief in God at that point, and I still believed that all this exploratory work would make me a better Christian.

“One day, as I was driving to church, I thought to myself, ‘If God created the world with such variety, why would God limit the knowledge of himself to one religion? At that moment, I moved from a belief that Christianity was the only way to find God, to believing that no matter what path you took, you would find God.

“At this time, I was also dealing with the issue of evil. This is one of those things that most of us have attempted to make peace with at some point in our lives. As I fought with the idea of a literal hell and eternal torment, I began to see the problems with all the suffering in the world as well. How could any deity allow their ‘children’ to endure horrific violence, needless suffering, and even torture without acting to assist them?

“I considered my own children. My sons are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, yet even when they had gotten into a lot of trouble, I never considered using torture or extreme violence to teach them a lesson. If I, as a human parent, couldn’t harm my child in that way, then how could a loving deity?

“A work by Epicurus drove the final nail in the coffin of my faith for me:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

“That last line did me in. I realized, in that moment, that this quest to find knowledge and understanding had taken me from being a devout believer to being an Atheist. I no longer believed — I couldn’t believe! Looking back, I think I had been an Atheist for a long time; I was just unwilling to accept that fact. When you believe something so strongly, when you’ve been immersed in your faith your entire life, when it is just as much a part of you as your arms, or legs, or fingers, then the acknowledgement of change is a very hard pill to swallow. I didn’t want to lose my faith. I didn’t want to change or stop believing, but I wanted truth more!

“Once I realized that my faith was gone, I began working on my exit strategy. I took a second job for a while to pay off a few bills. My desire was to get our family on a more secure footing before I walked away. I worked diligently, spending every penny on furthering my goal.

“My final year of ministry was full of reading books related to the issues I was struggling with. As I progressed from Christian to deist, to agnostic, I had the overwhelming need to connect with another person who was facing these same struggles. I had no idea if there were any others like me, but I had to find out.

“One Monday morning last July, I entered ‘clergy who think they’re losing their faith’ into a search engine. Dan Barker’s book godless popped up first. I immediately downloaded it to my Kindle. I read it in record time and then called the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s contact number on the last page.

“Dan himself called me back within the hour and we had a very long conversation. He invited me to join The Clergy Project, a new online support group for clergy who no longer hold supernatural beliefs, and I did so immediately.

“I spent hours on the site after that day. There were only 60 of us when I joined, and we each shared our struggles with each other. At the time, I couldn’t believe there were as many as 60 pastors out there who had lost their belief in god! Today, we have over 340 members and are still growing. I think we’re only at the tip of the iceberg.

“On March 18, 2012, I stepped down from my pulpit for the last time. I knew that the farce could not continue. My sanity was slipping away, day by day, as I struggled to deal with my loss of faith and the very real issue of leaving the ministry. I was at the end of my rope, physically and emotionally, and I couldn’t do it anymore.

“A few days after that I was at the American Atheists convention, attending as my online pseudonym, ‘Lynn.’ Initially I had planned only to attend the convention. But in a strange turn of events, the opportunity to be a speaker and come out publicly presented itself. I reasoned that standing in front of the crowd would do one major thing: get the word out to my fellow Atheist clergy!

“That was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back for me. Realizing that simply taking the stage, as I had done for many years, and being open with this group of people, would open the door for many others trapped in the pulpit. I had the chance to give them the courage to come out as well. I knew I had to do it!

“I fought anxiety from the moment I found out I would be speaking. I had no idea what was going to happen when I stepped up on stage and shared my story. My intent was to speak for 20 minutes, detailing my journey. But once I was at the podium, looking out at the faces of everyday people just like me, I was overwhelmed with guilt for the way I had treated Atheists in the past. In that moment, I tossed aside my notes and simply apologized to all the people that I had hurt with my actions in the past.

“As I poured my heart out before several hundred strangers, I experienced one of the most powerful feelings I’ve ever felt: acceptance. The faces staring back at me were not glaring, angry faces. They were compassionate, emotional, loving faces. In retrospect, I realize that my treatment at the hands of Atheists has been much more (pardon the language)‘Christ-like’ than that of Christians.”

Teresa’s entire speech is on YouTube… The following is a portion of what she told her fellow Atheists.

“First of all I want to apologize to all of you. I was one of those crazy fundamentalists, right-wingers, haters. That’s the only word I can use for it. I want to say that I’m sorry to each of you for knocking on your door — you know what I’m talking about — trying to weasel my way in so I could convince you how wrong you were and how right I was.

“I want to apologize for verbally abusing you from the pulpit; for using the pulpit as a bully pulpit to just… hate. I can’t think of a better word for it: hating. I want to apologize to you for believing that you were godless, heathen, slimy, immoral, and drunken.

“I never knew anything about you. I had never seen any of your faces. You were just ‘those people.’ I was the one on the right track, and you were the ones who were going to burn in hell. And I’m happy to say as I stand before you right now, I’m gonna burn with you! I have lived with guilt and with god as a taskmaster for 44 years. No more.

“It’s a scary thing — I guess that goes without saying — to stand before you, but not because of you. Isn’t that amazing? You all are offering me the most humbling experience of my life. You are offering me love and acceptance without judgment. I’ve been a preacher. I have been evil to you. And yet, I see tears, I see nods, I see love. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like this before. Thank you so much.”

After the convention, Teresa went home to resign as pastor of her church. She was honest with her superiors and her congregation. She felt they were worthy of the truth. The commandment about not bearing false witness against her neighbor still makes sense to her, even if the rest of the Bible doesn’t. She found out that while it’s a sin in her church to bear false witness, hating a bearer of the truth is not.

“The fallout was immediate and devastating. The church, where I had pastored for over three years, changed all the locks and would not let me on the property to collect my belongings. It took over two months to get them to return my things. The local news ran my story for three weeks, garnering thousands of online comments. I received hateful emails, voicemails, letters, and facebook posts and messages. My son’s friends would not have anything to do with him because I was his mother, and many of my husbands co-workers came to him offering their ‘sympathy.’ One even asked him when we were getting a divorce!

“Many messages were from people who desired to see me suffer physically. One man, whom I had served with on a three-day spiritual retreat, left me a voice mail saying, ‘I can’t wait to look down on you in hell and watch the flesh burn off your body.’ Wow! That’s Christian love in action!

“Coming out definitely has a price. It has cost me almost everything, but I wouldn’t go back. I’m happy to be out, to be free, to live openly and honestly. The answers to the issues we all face are contained in our ability to reach out and help one another, not in praying to some mysterious force, hoping for that deity to swoop in and save the day.

“I don’t think I had any expectations about coming out except that I would be living an honest life that didn’t include preaching lies. I’m still the same person with all the same hang-ups; I’m just able to be open about who I am now. I have such peace, knowing that ‘I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.’”

You can subscribe to the Teresa MacBain channel on YouTube and follow her on Twitter at @Teresamacbain and on Facebook. She blogs at AgnosticPastor.WordPress.com. You can reach her office at tmacbain@atheists.org.

Pamela Whissel is the editor of American Atheist Magazine.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Dats3

    I work for a UMC Conference and have for almost ten years.  I’m in the closet because of fear of reprisal.  I need my job right now.  I’m not clergy and do not involve myself in any ministry.  Working there, working with pastors and lay leaders has cemented my atheistism.  I do admire some of the work the Methodist do but jeez the mental acrobatics these pastors use to get around logic is astounding.  Their christian love when expressed toward non-believers is much like Teresa’s experience.  It’s no wonder pastors are fearful and remain silent. 

    Having said that, what has surprised me the most is personal conversations I have had with some pastors and even our bishop.  I had one pastor, retired now, who I would have engaging conversations with about how to reconcile Jesus and a creator God with what we know about cosmology and physics.  And this surprised the hell out of me, he told me that he felt the bible was a metaphor and nothing more. Even more surprising was to hear him preach.  He is a very uplifting pastor but preached salvation and the bible as the authoritative word of god.  At first I thought he was a hypocrite, but I’ve come to believe that he was just an actor.  Not only that, so close to retirement he would have lost a lot had he preached what he really believed.  I don’t know if he is an atheist but he seemed to me to be, at least, a skeptic.

    For pastors and anyone associated with a church or religious organization coming out is very risky and can potentially destroy not only your livelyhood but your relationships with your friends.  I wish I was as courageous as Teresa, but I’m not.  I have a son to take care of and right now I can’t risk it.  I swallow hard and just take it until I can do better.  Religion is at best malevolent.  Glad this site is here. 

  • Octoberfurst

     I heard Teresa MacBain speak at the Humanist conference in Harrisburg Pa this past September and she was brilliant!  Her speech was  funny, insightful and passionate.  She really did lose virtually all her friends when she became an atheist.  I think she said less than a handful of people from her old church still speak to her.  (Lovely Christian tolerance huh?)  But we are lucky to have her on our side.  She is a fantastic  spokesperson for us. If you get the chance to hear her speak do so!

  • Clarissa

    Teresa, if you are reading this, I want you to know that you are AMAZING. Everything you’ve done takes so much courage and integrity, more than most people have. I know life has probably gotten a lot harder for you since you came out, but I honestly believe that you did the right thing and I hope that it makes your life better from here on out. 

  • Pseudonym

    I was brought up in a Methodist family. When I was young, the Methodist church merged with two other denominations to form the third-largest Christian denomination in Australia. I’m still a member of that church, and still identify with it.

    This story shocks me no end, mostly because of how Theresa was treated by her church. But part of it is because Methodism in the US seems far more backward than it is elsewhere in the world.

    Theresa said that Rob Bell’s book got her off the belief in hell. That was, like, just in the last couple of years. I didn’t know that there were still Methodists who believed in a literal hell, or that the Bible was inerrant, or any of that stuff. Pretty much every Methodist cleric I’ve met is either neo-Orthodox (in the Karl Barth/Emil Brunner sense) or ultra-liberal (occupying some point on the spectrum between Rudolf Bultmann and John Shelby Spong).

    (Of course, to a fundamentalist, a neo-Orthodox or ultra-liberal cleric may as well be atheist. Hell, most atheists think that Spong is atheist. I digress.)

    I bring all this up because embracing theological diversity is one of the ways that the modern church is supposed to be guarding against the kind of horrible treatment that Theresa was subjected to.

    But then, I just listened to the Red State Blue State epsiode of This American Life, and the fracturing of communities, friendships and relationships over something as petty as political party support. Theresa’s story is, I think it’s safe to say, more about the demographics and the polarisation of the United States than religion.

    I feel deeply sorry. But I’m glad that she’s found a community that works for her. Far better to be in a loving and accepting atheist community than a toxic theist community. I wish her the best.

  • advancedatheist

    She had been dealing with such contradictions for many years when she started thinking about hell. 

    But don’t the people who go to hell do so with the knowledge that their existence has meaning & purpose as god’s creatures? Apparently christians prefer that to the alleged meaninglessness & purposelessness of life taught by materialist philosophies like Epicureanism. 

  • Godlesspanther

    Welcome home, Theresa!

  • chinasea

    As we are well aware, the most overtly homophobic characters very often tend to be closet gays. Is this syndrome partly true of the overtly religious preachers, being closet atheists?

  • JohnnieCanuck

    It would be consistent, I think. Somehow it seems to be that by speaking out in front of others against our doubts, humans can convince ourselves that what we wish to believe is true. It’s making a commitment that’s hard to back down from; a bridge burned so now it should be easier to forget the doubts.

    That’s what always seems to occur to me while listening to an acquaintance of mine who is always marveling at the glories of this world and its creator. He seems to be gaining assurance that his faith is correct as he argues for it. Then when I remain unconvinced by arguments about tornadoes assembling jumbo jets in junkyards and point out their flaws, he retreats to ‘knowing by the warmth in his heart that Jesus cares deeply for him’.

    They all have doubts (how could they not?), though some have suppressed them so well that they aren’t much bothered by them. I kind of like to think that inside every theist is an atheist, struggling to get through the barriers that have been set up and are being actively defended.

  • JohnnieCanuck

    It would be consistent, I think. Somehow it seems to be that by speaking out in front of others against our doubts, humans can convince ourselves that what we wish to believe is true. It’s making a commitment that’s hard to back down from; a bridge burned so now it should be easier to forget the doubts.

    That’s what always seems to occur to me while listening to an acquaintance of mine who is always marveling at the glories of this world and its creator. He seems to be gaining assurance that his faith is correct as he argues for it. Then when I remain unconvinced by arguments about tornadoes assembling jumbo jets in junkyards and point out their flaws, he retreats to ‘knowing by the warmth in his heart that Jesus cares deeply for him’.

    They all have doubts (how could they not?), though some have suppressed them so well that they aren’t much bothered by them. I kind of like to think that inside every theist is an atheist, struggling to get through the barriers that have been set up and are being actively defended.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sandy-Kokch/100000074576649 Sandy Kokch

     Mate don’t feel bad and beat yourself up for what you are doing. In effect you are trapped and living the Platonic / Noble Lie. You are just human, and are compromising your own beliefs to look after your family and dependents. That, unfortunately, is a burden you have to bear till something better comes along and you can be open about what you feel.

    Yes it does take bucket loads of bravery to do what Theresa and many others have done, but sometimes its not possible to follow them.

    Just soldier on, look for other opportunities, and try not to let this get to you. Stay true to yourself and your family – being truthful with others can come later.

    Good luck mate.

  • JBC

    Am I reading this correctly…she continued to preach even though she no longer beleived?

    If she was willing to lie to her congregation and people who trusted her, could she be lying to us about things.

    I dunno…I know there is a lot of hype over these ex preachers, but there is something creepy about them.

    No one ever really trusts a traitor.

  • JBC

    One reason that the people in the old church feel betrayed is that she continued to preach after she no longer believed.

    And another is that she made her announcement 400 miles away without even telling them.

    She treated them like dirt, and that is being ignored.

  • JBC

    Yes, its hypocrisy.  And of course you can always find a reason to excuse it.

    And I think there have always been people working in the church who didn’t believe.

    That is one clear reason why the church has had so many problems…people observe these people acting hypocritically (and don’t pretend it won’t come out in other aspects of your behavior) and wonder how that can be.

    No mystery…they don’t believe in Christ anyway.

    I am glad to see them starting to come out…think of the damage guys like Barker and Loftus (both of whom continued to preach when they no “longer” beleiver) could havd done had they worked from within.

  • Mina

    I like the phrase “ascent to Atheism” Teresa uses to describe her journey, because that’s exactly how I felt when I became an Atheist. People at the time used to tell me how sorry (or angry) they were that I had lost my faith. Yet it didn’t feel like a loss at all. I was simply able to become part of a greater, more diverse reality where everything is the result a multitude of different causes and contributing factors, all interacting in complex and fascinating ways. I’d definitely see this as a step upward from the narrower, “virtual” reality and monocausal explanations of faith.

  • Paul Paulus

    If God created the world with such variety, why would God limit the knowledge of himself to one religion?


    This has been added to my anti-theist war-chest.

  • Bellj

    Interesting. I also went the Christian to Deist to Agnostic (briefly) then to Atheist route.  I don’t rush people who are questioning their faith. They may have to take the long road too. I envy those who were quicker about it, though.

  • Dats3

     -Well, perhaps it is hypocrisy.  I do like some of these people who express their skepticism so I’m giving them the benefit of doubt I guess.  I still believed to a small degree 8 years ago and now i don’t.  So in some ways I feel like a hypocrite now.  There just aren’t a lot of IT jobs in my area right now with comparable salary.  The pay is pretty decent too.  Having said that, I do how insight into how things work in a protestant church.  It’s not something I want to be a part of anymore and I do understand why it is so difficult for pastors to come out.

    @Sandy – Thanks for the good word.  You’re right.  If I didn’t have any dependents I’d move to find something better.  I don’t mind being in the closet most of the time it just gets on my nerves sometimes that I don’t speak my mind.  Good news is my 9 yr old son seems to be taking after his old man about religion and questions everything.  I love it!  His mother does too.  I want him to have freedom to discover his own path in a way I was prevented by my evangelical family.

  • Antinomian

    Thank you for the shining example of christian love JBC. It will serve as an inspiration to all…..somewhere….

  • Pseudonym

    As we are well aware, the most overtly homophobic characters very often tend to be closet gays.

    Are we aware of that? Or do we just think it’s true without evidence?

    Darrell Huff, in his famous book How to Lie with Statistics, advised that the first question you should ask of a statistical claim is “Does it make sense?”

    So let’s do a quick back-of-the-envelope sketch to see if it makes sense.

    A reasonable null hypothesis is that overt homophobes are gay in the same proportion as in the general population. We will exclude those who identify as “ex-gay” or some variant thereof (because they’re not “closeted” in any meaningful sense), and only look at men.

    The proportion of gay men in the general population of men is somewhere in the range 3-7%, depending on how you ask the question. Let’s say one in 20 is a rough estimate.

    Now think of the high profile homophobes that are around, both those who have been caught out loving their fellow man in the way many deities didn’t intend, and those who haven’t. I don’t know about you, but for every one I can think of who has, I can fairly readily come up with the names of 20 who haven’t.

    Of course, not every closeted gay guy indulges, and not everyone who indulges has been caught. But whichever way you cut it, there doesn’t seem to be enough evidence to reject the null hypothesis.

    Critical thinking FTW!

    Now one thing that we didn’t include here (this is just back-of-the-envelope
    Now it could be that the more rabidly homophobic a guy is, the more likely it is that he’s closeted (possibly lying to himself) gay.

    Now of course this doesn’t mean that the existence of many overt homophobes who are closeted homosexual people is something that shouldn’t be remarked upon. First off, the Barney Frank Rule certainly applies. Secondly, such people are iconic, especially in the context of the “homosexuality is a choice” and “ex-gay” rhetoric.

    Nonetheless, I don’t think we can claim that overt homophobes are often closeted homosexual people.

  • TheAntiHarris

    Whats this got to do with Christian love or anything else?  She did lie to the people who trusted her

    What,  is that an “atheist value” or something?

  • RobMcCune

    Her lies spread christian messages and beliefs, that means she was engaging in pious fraud, a christian virtue. Also, she kept her doubts and dissenting opinions secret for fear of christian repercussions, so she was living according to christian values the whole time.

  • Robster

    Nothing harder for an afflicted godbot than facing a former godbot that’s been able to escape the love offered by shallow christians. I recon really that most of them (clerics) don’t believe because it’s so plainly unbelievable and to do so in a public place is a bit like waving a red flag with the words “I’m a deluded twit” written upon it. The rigors of peer group and economic pressure would no doubt make it difficult, but living a lie, lying professionally and looking at people in the eye to tell them “jesus loves you”, “the snake talks” and the rest of the childish nonsense would have to be harder.

  • Baal

     It’s traitorous to examine what you think and then change your mind?  Where I come from, that’s called growing wiser.  I think there is something creepy in your othering of former clergy.  It’s like you want to up the social costs for leaving the ministry or something.

  • Octoberfurst

     You can get all self-righteous about it and act as if YOU would have immediately stepped once you started having doubts but that is not the way most people would have handled it.   Most Christian have doubts and those that never doubt are either very gullible or very stupid in my humble opinion.  Her calling was to be a minister. Was she to just immediately throw that away?  What if her doubts were wrong? She had a career to think of. Her job was helping put food on the table.  You make it seem so open and shut.
       And are you seriously trying to blame the fact that people see Christians as hypocrites as being due to the churches having closet atheists in them?  You wrote it’s because “they don’t believe in Christ anyway.” Gee could you be any more arrogant?  What’s it like being as perfect as you are?